DAKOTA DUNES -- With a firestorm of negative publicity quickly drying up sales of its lean boneless beef, Beef Products Inc. on Monday suspended operations at three of its four plants where it makes the product.
BPI's flagship South Sioux City complex has been spared for now, but production and hours there have been "significantly reduced," co-founder Regina Roth said.
The dramatic moves come on the heels of a social media frenzy in the past two weeks that has cost the Dakota Dunes-based company a "substantial" portion of its business.
By temporarily halting production of Lean Finely Textured Beef at its plants in Waterloo, Iowa, Amarillo, Texas, and Garden City, Kan., BPI hopes to buy enough time to address all the "lies and misrepresentations" about its product and win back its many customers.
"We understand consumers' concerns," Roth said at a news conference. "If I heard only what they're hearing and didn't know better, I'd be concerned too. That's why we need to spread the truth as effectively and quickly as we can."
BPI's product, which has been on the market for decades and meets all government safety standards, recently became a target of activists, who dubbed it "pink slime." After a flurry of national news outlets picked up the unappetizing term, social media sites exploded with worries.
After an online petition seeking the product's ouster from schools garnered hundreds of thousands of supporters, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided to give school districts a choice of using beef patties that contain the product or more fatty bulk ground beef. That was followed by many of the largest supermarket chains announcing they would no longer buy the product.
Roth urged the public not to fault retailers, which include West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee.
"They're just under intense pressure themselves," she said. "They would love to continue to use our product. We hope they will again some day."
Roth encouraged the local community, which has rallied behind BPI, to help set the record straight. In a show of support, more than two dozen Siouxland leaders turned out for Monday's news conference, lining up behind Roth in the atrium of BPI's headquarters in Two Rivers Business Park. Dozens of corporate employees watched the proceedings from the balconies from the two upper floors.
BPI, founded in 1981 by Regina and Eldon Roth, is the world's largest supplier of lean boneless beef. At its peak, BPI's meat was found in an estimated 70 percent of the nation's ground beef.
The family business has grown to more than 1,500 employees, including about 475 at its sprawling South Sioux City plant, where a $400 million expansion project began in 2007. New construction has been suspended, and a nearly finished beef patty plant sits empty, BPI administrator Rich Jochum said.
In the wake of the most recent controversy, worker hours at the South Sioux City plant have been cut back to 32 to 36 per week, he said.
The Waterloo, Amarillo and Garden City plants employ about 200 workers each. The workers will get full salary and benefits for up to 60 days during the suspension. Jochum said if the company is unsuccessful rebuilding its business by then, it most likely would be forced to shutter the plants.
Eldon Roth, his son Nick, and his son-in-law, Craig Letch, traveled to each site Monday to break the news to the employees. Letch is married to the Roths' daughter, Jennifer, who also is involved with the family business.
"As an employer, it's devastating to watch what's happening to people who have worked hard to help ensure this commitment to quality," Regina Roth said. "As a mother whose children moved here to work and carry on this company, it makes me fiercely angry."
Roth said she also felt "heartbroken" over how the social media uproar has tarnished Eldon Roth, who she emphasized has dedicated his life to food safety, receiving multiple industry awards over the years.
Eldon Roth, who did not attend Monday's news conference, pioneered the use of specialized equipment and techniques to separate bits of lean beef from packinghouse trimmings, or fatty scraps left over after meat is cut into steaks or roasts. A centrifuge process separates the beef from the fat, creating a product that is more than 95 percent lean.
To kill bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella, the product is also exposed to a puff of ammonia hydroxide. The company points out the gas is a naturally occurring component that's widely used in the processing of numerous foods, such as baked goods, cheeses and chocolate. The treatment process was affirmed by the federal Food and Drug Administration in 1973 and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2001.
In an open letter included in a full-page ad in the Journal on Monday, Eldon Roth said the company has an "unsurpassed" safety record, with zero instances of food-borne illness associated with its product out of nearly 300 billion meals served, a point Regina Roth reiterated at Monday's news conference.
In the ad, Eldon Roth accused critics of waging a campaign of "lies and deceit" against the company and its beef, with the clear goal of putting "BPI out of business."
The co-founder warned the "misinformation campaign" could result in the loss of more than 3,000 jobs, a count that includes BPI's own workers and those employed by vendors, suppliers and other companies that rely on BPI's plants, from trucking firms to cleaning companies.
In addition to being one of the metro area's largest employers, BPI founders have donated millions of dollars to a long list of civic and charitable endeavors over the years. BPI employees also have served on numerous not-for-profit boards and volunteer for a wide range of activities, Siouxland Chamber of Commerce President Chris McGowan said.
"Their importance to our community cannot be overstated," McGowan said.